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16

Cat Cross Their Graves

By one in the morning the wind had scoured the village streets clean, scuttling odd bits of paper and debris against cottage steps and bushes; wind battered the gardens, sucking away dead leaves and bright flowers indiscriminately to pile them against fences and shops and in recessed doorways. Lori, in her concrete lair, listened to the wind slapping against the building and didn't much want to go out, wanted to stay huddled in her cold bed. Even through the thick concrete walls, the wind moaned and cried. She thought about the times she had gone to the shore in the predawn dark, when the wind had swept the sand clean of footprints, the prints of humans and dogs, and the little forked prints of birds. All swept away, leaving the sand as smooth as if no living creature had ever passed there. As if she were the only one remaining in an empty world.

When she reached out beneath the blanket to silence her alarm, the damp cold pushed right into her, its icy fingers reaching to her bones. During the night she had thought about going up into the dark library to see if someone might have left a sweater or coat, but it was too cold even to do that. Mama used to say she could feel the cold right to her bones. That was after she got the cancer. She would huddle under the blankets shivering with cold that, she said, was not like any cold she'd ever known.

Lori thought about before Mama got sick, Mama tucking her in under their warm, thick quilts and snuggling close when it was snowing outside. She thought about Mama so hard that she thought she could smell Mama's lavender soap and the scent of her tomato plants on Mama's hands, and the sleepy scent of her nightie. She would never smell those smells again.

But she would never go back to Pa. So angry and silent and then shouting and swearing at her and smelling of whiskey. And if he didn't smell of whiskey, he was just real quiet. She never knew if he was mad at her or so mad at someone else that he just had to shout. Maybe mad at the whole world. That's what Mama said, that Pa hated the whole world and Mama didn't know why. After Mama died, when child welfare brought her back to Pa, she thought it had to be better than those foster homes in Greenville but it wasn't. When he got up in the mornings he didn't talk to her; he drank coffee and locked her in the house and told her to eat peanut butter for lunch and not dare to go outside. She'd started school, but Pa made her stop. And their house was hot all the time. No way to open a window, he'd nailed them all shut.

He thought she couldn't open the heavy bolts on the doors but she found a hammer and hid it under her mattress. She could open the back door bolt with that but she was scared he'd catch her, scared to run away. She only went in the backyard in the sunshine. When he got home after work he just sat in his chair, didn't talk to her, and he never read books or the newspaper like when she was little. If he turned on the TV she didn't think he saw or heard it, he just sat there and never moved except to drink whiskey. Except if she did anything he didn't like. Then he yelled at her. He always heated a can of soup for their supper and made her sit at the table with him but he never said a word. If she went near the front or back door, he'd shout. And then one day he came home from work and she was in the backyard playing jacks. She'd forgot how late it was. He was real mad, and that night he found her hammer and he took it and nailed the back door shut. But he didn't find the pliers she'd taken from the garage. The next day he put padlocks on both doors and that night she lay in her bed thinking about what Mama would do.

She had that social worker's phone number. That lady that met her at the airport. Had it in her school notebook but she didn't want to call that woman, she didn't want to go to another foster home. When she knew he was asleep, when she could hear him snoring, she stuffed her clothes and toothbrush in her backpack, crammed in some cans of beans and plums from the kitchen, and a jar of jam and one of peanut butter. She used the pliers to open the kitchen door to the garage, where there were boxes of old, musty clothes from when she and Mama lived there.

She'd dug around real careful because there were spiders. She found the old plaid blanket and a rolled-up sun pad with a cord around it from when Mama used to lie in the sun. Both of them smelled like the boxes of clothes did. And when she was rooting around in the boxes, that was when she found the billfold-that was when everything changed.

That was when she really, really knew she couldn't stay with Pa any longer.

She didn't remember Uncle Hal very well except she didn't like him much. He was always too nice to her. Always asking so many questions about school. "You're finishing the first grade? Most girls your age are just going into kindergarten. Are you doing numbers yet? Do you like that? Do some sums for me, Lori. Or why don't you read to me? Your mama says you can already read real well. Read to me from your little book." She hated that. Pa scolded her for being rude to Uncle Hal but she couldn't help it. She was glad when he went away to British Columbia. To spend his days fishing, that's what Pa said.

The morning she found the billfold, she was surprised Uncle Hal would go away without his driver's license and credit cards. British Columbia was in Canada, but was that place so different that he didn't need a license or credit cards? Not likely. His snakeskin belt, that Uncle Hal wore all the time, was with the billfold, and his gold ring shaped like a dragon; she'd never seen him without that ring on his middle finger. She didn't know what made her take them when she found them, but she stuffed them in her backpack. She broke the garage window to get out. Hit it with a shovel then climbed on Pa's work bench and jumped out.

It was after she ran away that she thought about the terrible argument Pa and Uncle Hal had the night before Uncle Hal left. The two of them shouting and swearing so bad that Mama took her out for a walk to get away from the house and they ended up at a late movie. When they got home real late Uncle Hal was gone fishing. And after that, he didn't come over anymore. That was when Pa started being so cross all the time.

Had Pa been looking for her the day she saw him outside the library? She'd never seen him in the library, even if Mama used to work there; he didn't like libraries. Anyway he didn't know about the hidden room. She'd found it when Mama worked upstairs at the checkout desk. She was only six. She came down to the workroom to watch the library assistant, who was in high school, paste pockets for cards in the books. When the assistant went home for lunch and she, Lori, stayed there reading, that was when she found the loose bricks in the wall. She'd taken some of the bricks out and looked in. The hole was big and like a dark cave and smelled of old, dry concrete and mice.

Now, scowling at the silenced alarm clock, she sat up at last in the icy room and reached for her flashlight. In its thin glow she pulled on two sweatshirts and her jacket and then her jeans and jogging shoes, all the time keeping her blanket around her as much as she could, and listening to the wind howl around the library windows.

She didn't eat anything. She was really tired of plums and cold beans. She could choose among plain red beans or navy beans or baked beans. That got old. And the peanut butter and jam were gone; she'd dropped the empty jars in a trash bin at the beach. Now, moving the bricks, stacking them where she could reach them from the other side, she crawled through, then put them back, arranging them carefully. She was getting tired of this, and her hands were scratched raw.

Mama would say she was lucky to have such a cozy place. But Mama would hug her and kiss her and rub on thick hand cream and bring her a nice, thick quilt to make her warm again.

Well, she was acting like a baby. Mama said you did what you had to do. And tonight, right now, she had to do this, had to talk with Genelle Yardley. Find out about Pa so she'd understand. Find out why Pa was so angry.

Pushing the bookcase in front of the bricks, careful to get it exactly where it had stood before, she hurried to the dark basement window that opened to the sidewalk.

Sliding open the glass, she looked up and down the dark street. Molena Point had no streetlights. Only the shop lights, to light the sidewalks real soft. The sky above her was lighter than the village streets. From the stars, she guessed, and from the crooked moon that was smeared by clouds. She couldn't see anyone on the street. Climbing out into the concrete well that was lower than the sidewalk, she slid the glass back in place. The lock, the way she had broken it with tools she'd found in the janitor's closet, still looked like it was locked tight. She was proud of the way she'd done that. When she stood up out of the window well, the wind hit her hard, slapping her against the building. Climbing out, she stared up the street toward the hills to the north. She was scared to go way up there alone, she wished Mama could reach down and take her hand.

One morning when she'd slipped out of the library she'd stayed out too long. When she came back someone was already in the workroom. She hid in the bushes all day and was really hungry by nine that night when the library closed. She'd thought of going home and, if Pa's truck was gone, trying to get more food, but she was afraid to try. And that night when she got back the cat was there, the library cat, waiting in the basement workroom for her, and real glad to see her. Dulcie stayed with her all that night, snuggled close. You could talk to a cat and it couldn't repeat a thing. A cat couldn't tell Pa where she was. Dulcie was someone to talk to while she ate her beans and then rolled out her bed and got under the blanket and pulled the lamp close. The cat had curled up on the blanket close to her while she read, then came right up to snuggle in her hair. And Dulcie had lain there beside her cheek looking at the pages, almost like she was reading, too.

Then when she woke up in the morning, the cat was gone. Likely went out its cat door in that librarian's office, Ms. Getz. Strange that a cat would live in the library part of the time. Wouldn't find nothing like that back in Greenville; if Mama saw a sight like that, she'd laugh. Lori could just hear her. A cat in the library? A library cat? What does it do, honey, read the books to the children? But everyone loved Dulcie, all the kids wanted to hold Dulcie at story hour.

Mama couldn't make jokes anymore.

Mama couldn't laugh anymore.

Or, Lori thought, hurrying through the dark, midnight village among the little shops with their softly lit windows, or could Mama still laugh? Wherever Mama was, could she still laugh and be happy? And if she could, then could Mama see and hear her? Where did you go when you died? She missed Mama so bad, and she missed their home place in Greenville with just the two of them, the little cabin all among the trees; she missed being there with Mama.

She was leaving the shops now and it was darker still. Leaving behind the glow of their windows was like stepping into her basement cave in the middle of the night with no light at all. Hurrying uphill shivering with the wind blowing at her back, she startled at every shadow. There was only a thin moon. She didn't know whether to walk in the middle of the dark street away from the black pools of yards and gardens, or to slip along there where it was darkest and she might not be noticed. Pushing up into the village hills, she prayed hard that she was alone. She kept listening, but she heard no sound behind her except the scurrying sound of trees shaking in the wind. Glancing back every few steps, she saw nothing moving behind her but the faint, whipping shadows of blowing branches- until, over the sound of the wind, a soft and rhythmic hush, hush began.

The steady scuff of soft shoes? Tennis shoes or jogging shoes? She looked around, but saw no one.

But someone was following. Every few steps she could hear a little squeak, as of rubber soles on the concrete.

Glancing back into the shaking, shifting shadows, she stopped a minute, staring.

Then she ran.

He chased her, soft clump clump, squeak. Clump clump, squeak. He drew closer, louder. She dodged and twisted but couldn't get away; he grabbed her, his hands as hard as steel. Jerked her around hard and held her. So small a man, but so strong. She fought and twisted but couldn't move, couldn't move at all, it was like being held by an iron robot. She didn't know anyone was that strong, not to give at all. She tried to knee him where it hurt the most, but he threw her around off balance and tripped her, his foot pulling her leg out so she fell; she couldn't break his grip, tried to twist and kick and couldn't get loose from him. He dragged her down the street, his hand over her mouth, dragged her for blocks, then shoved her into a car, shoved her over, past the steering wheel, and got in. She was going to die. He was going to kill her. But why? What had she done? Or was he just a crazy, what adults called a predator? And that thought turned her truly sick with fear.


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